Maine paleobotanist George Jacobson Jr. is not going to the March for Science on April 22. It’s not that the former director of University of Maine’s much respected Climate Change Institute, has got something against Earth Day, the day planners chose for the march, or that he doesn’t have opinions about policy and politics. “Of course” he does. “But I don’t talk about them, because I want people to understand the science as objectively as possible.”
His is a classic, old-school science perspective; scientists have traditionally steered away from overtly political actions. The March for Science, slated to take place in 500 communities around the world, including four in Maine, was clearly born out of politics. It was proposed the day before the Women’s March in January on a Reddit thread – and quickly backed up on Twitter by a group that included University of Maine scientist Jacquelyn Gill. The Reddit language described it as a “targeted message explicitly in favor of defending science from a hostile administration.”
But the scientist who holds Jacobson’s former position at the Climate Change Institute, its current director Paul Mayewski, calls it a “fantastic opportunity” to show support for the sciences. He even proposed a science-inspired art project to debut in Portland (see sidebar) on the evening after the march and be shown again on the evening of a second march, the People’s Climate Change March later that month in Washington, DC and elsewhere.
The organizer of a March for Science in Machias is a University of Maine Machias psychology and communities studies professor, Meghan Wilson Duff. She might be in the social sciences field, but she feels strongly about advocating for science. As an educator, she never wants to “grind facts into students’ heads.” But living as she does in a coastal community that will be particularly affected by impacts of climate change, such as rising seas, at a moment when the new Trump administration is removing clean energy plans it says “burdened Americans with costly regulations,” she feels an urgency to speak up for science. She’s defending the reality that science is not opinion – it is a field driven by pursuit of facts.
“This is an important time for public engagement,” Duff said.
The question of whether or not to march faces scientists everywhere. Close on the heels of the March for Science is the People’s Climate March, scheduled for April 29, not coincidentally, Trump’s 100th day in office. Scientists must decide if they want to step into the political arena. How do these people who are driven by data, by facts, by truth, adapt in a climate where facts, even ones that have been peer reviewed a hundred times over, are disputed and their lifes’ work challenged by politicians – including the one in the White House?
“I am so demoralized by the disrespect shown to our nation’s top scientists,” Gill wrote on Twitter as she watched a Congressional hearing on climate in March. Some scientists have found they need to evolve and serve as their own advocates.
GIVING VOICE TO SCIENCE
Some scientists, including Jacobson and David Hart, a professor of biology and ecology who is the director of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, point out that science has come under political attack in other eras, including during the pesticide battle lead by Rachel Carson in the 1960s after the publication of “Silent Spring” and in the Ronald Reagan years, when the then-president famously dissed the Redwood forests. “I can quote it,” Hart said. ” ‘If you have seen one redwood, you have seen them all.’ ”
“There have been huge controversies,” Hart added. “I think it is important for us to realize that this isn’t a completely unique moment.”
Paty Matrai, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay sees the erosion of respect for science – and scientists – as an evolving trend over the past decade. She, unlike Hart, will march for her profession on April 22. But she says she would also have marched last April, during the Obama administration, had there been such a march.
“I am going because I think that, one, science is underestimated and undervalued by people in general,” she said. “And two, because science right now is underfunded, whether it is federal, state or private funding. Everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to fund it.”
Marching may seem like a political act, but she points out that she’s doing it as an individual, not as a representative of Bigelow. Others expressed similar sentiments. Duff, who organized the Machias march in part because she had such an empowering experience at small-scale Women’s marches in Lubec and Eastport in January and wanted to give her community a chance for a similar gathering, said she is keeping her organizing duties separate from “my university world.”
But for scientists like Jacobson, scientific fact carries with it a sort of exemption from opinion.
“My goal is not to advocate a particular policy or political position but to have people understand the issues,” he said. To that end, even though he’s retired, he regularly goes out into the community to talk about plants and their evolution through time (and climate). It’s up to society to decide what to do with those facts, he says.
“There are a lot of competing interests that are legitimate,” Jacobson said. “If we decide collectively that a carbon tax is the best way to (address climate change), then maybe that is what we will do. I don’t think scientists telling people what to do is very helpful. Helping them understand the science is the best thing we can do.”
He concedes that “alternative facts” as Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway famously referred to her version of events, do not make that mission any easier.
Some say actions by the Trump administration do signify a unique sense of hostility to basic science that started within hours of the inauguration, when the White House website was stripped of references to climate change and all external communication from the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies was (temporarily) shut down. In February, scientists reeled at proposed budget cuts of 31 percent to the EPA and close to 20 percent at the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy. The National Science Foundation would see its budget slashed as well under the proposed budget. Across the scientific community funded by the federal government, cuts to science spending could be nearly 11 percent, according to Science Magazine, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Those cuts, if they happen – and the Trump administration is considered likely to face some opposition even from within his own party – would be a bad decision, said Nick Record, a senior research scientist who does ocean ecosystem modeling at Bigelow Lab. But that is not why he plans to participate in the March for Science (and the Climate Change March as well, if he can).
“To me this is not about the funding, actually,” Record said. “For me, science is about the benefit to society, not about me getting some grant funded.”
Record recently published a piece ruminating on the possibility of life without any government funding for science in the Bulletin of Limnology and Oceanography. (A key quote: “The courage to stand up for science, to engage policy makers, and to protest is essential to preserving the freedom of inquiry and the objectivity that underpin great science.”) It’s his belief that science can’t and won’t be stopped by budget cuts, even it is hampered by them, because the private sector would continue the kind of research the federal government currently funds, from studies of changing climate to biomedical research. His decision to march isn’t generated by fear that he’ll no longer get federal grants.
Record’s career has been defined by trying to give voice to science; he has taught as well as gone out into the community to talk about climate change. It’s never been just an academic exercise for him. He’s acutely aware of how his research can help society. “If you think about drought, wild fires, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, even epidemics, which climate change will impact, they all affect a lot of people, and in particular, vulnerable populations.” The March for Science is just a new means to give voice, he said.
“I want to be there to see what it is like and what it accomplishes and to learn from that and to build,” Record said.
As to whether science is, or should be, political? In March Gill wrote on Twitter that science “has never, ever been apolitical, because it is inherently a human endeavor.” Record echoes that.
“Nobody is really non-political,” he said.
YOU CAN LEAVE YOUR HAT ON
Hannah Holmes, a science writer who sells real estate in Portland, is not only going to the March for Science, she’ll be wearing this march’s equivalent of the pink “pussy hats” that were so prevalent at the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington, a pink skull cap with squiggly cables that looks like the brain, albeit a pink and wooly brain. (In keeping perhaps with the complexities of science, this pattern was so hard that it took her aunt, a fiber artist, six weeks to complete). She sees this march as a “rallying point for a whole lot of concerns that don’t have a home or haven’t traditionally had a home.”
She also sees a larger scientific community grappling with climate change deniers and an atmosphere of misinformation.
“It is a bit of a shock to the scientific community to see how poor a job we have done at communicating fundamental facts about how the planet works,” she said.
Holmes said she gets it; an existential threat to the climate is a lot for the public to absorb. It’s one thing to see impending apocalypse at the cinema, it’s another to live with the idea that human beings are truly altering the climate in a way that will dramatically alter our lives and well being.
“In any situation some people trust the experts and others don’t trust the experts,” she said. “They are both reasonable responses. Unfortunately, in this case, the facts fall heavily on the side of the likelihood of us steaming ourselves to death.”
Climate change denial is nothing new, she points out, but for some, it is more worrisome than ever before. The fact that the man living in the White House is a skeptic has emboldened deniers. In early April, Paul Mayewski, the director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine spoke out about a report sent to public school teachers nationwide in the last few weeks by the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank financed in part by the Charles G. Koch Foundation. He calls the report, which disputes basic facts about climate change, “inflammatory propaganda.” It came out in November 2015, but says this widespread distribution to teachers now is likely a result of the Trump presidency.
“Before this tremendous turn in the administration in the last couple of months, you’d throw it away,” Mayewski said.
Years ago, Mayeweski invited one of the Heartland report authors to the University of Maine so that students could hear a differing viewpoint. But given a massive consensus that climate change is happening, and is a result of human activity, affirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and published in multi-volume assessments of worldwide scientific literature, most recently in 2014, it’s time to move on.
“There is no purpose in listening to that person now,” Mayeweski said.
He believes climate change deniers have a simple agenda – “they don’t want federal regulation” – and believe they have an ally in the Trump administration. The United States, after being a leader in environmental regulations, has begun sending a message that “we don’t even care about the problem, at least at an executive level,” Mayewski said. He’s long been vocal about these issues. But the shift in administrations means it important to speak out, and yes, for scientists to march on Washington – or Machias or Portland – if they are so moved, he said.
“For the scientific community in general, this is a sort of wake-up call that they need to be much more involved in how people perceive science,” Mayewski said. “That means they need to be able to engage with everything and everyone from the public to other scientists.”
David Hart of the Mitchell Center won’t be marching – he considers a march too much of a one-way conversation – but he doesn’t disagree with the basic premise of being more involved.
“There are wonderful, committed scientists who have decided not to march,” Hart said. “But they aren’t saying, ‘we need to hide out and hunker down.’ We need to get out and speak in local settings where science is one of the things that can lead to a better future.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: